J. W. Mason left a very nice comment on my recent post about Paul Romer’s now-famous essay on macroeconomics, a comment now embedded in his interesting and insightful blog post on the Romer essay. As a wrote in my reply to Mason’s comment, I really liked the way he framed his point about rational expectations and intertemporal equilibrium. Sometimes when you see a familiar idea expressed in a particular way, the novelty of the expression, even though it’s not substantively different from other ways of expressing the idea, triggers a new insight. And that’s what I think happened in my own mind as I read Mason’s comment. Here’s what he wrote:
David Glasner’s interesting comment on Romer makes in passing a point that’s bugged me for years — that you can’t talk about transitions from one intertemporal equilibrium to another, there’s only the one. Or equivalently, you can’t have a model with rational expectations and then talk about what happens if there’s a “shock.” To say there is a shock in one period, is just to say that expectations in the previous period were wrong. Glasner:
the Lucas Critique applies even to micro-founded models, those models being strictly valid only in equilibrium settings and being unable to predict the adjustment of economies in the transition between equilibrium states. All models are subject to the Lucas Critique.
So the further point that I would make, after reading Mason’s comment, is just this. For an intertemporal equilibrium to exist, there must be a complete set of markets for all future periods and contingent states of the world, or, alternatively, there must be correct expectations shared by all agents about all future prices and the probability that each contingent future state of the world will be realized. By the way, If you think about it for a moment, the notion that probabilities can be assigned to every contingent future state of the world is mind-bogglingly unrealistic, because the number of contingent states must rapidly become uncountable, because every single contingency itself gives rise to further potential contingencies, and so on and on and on. But forget about that little complication. What intertemporal equilibrium requires is that all expectations of all individuals be in agreement – or at least not be inconsistent, some agents possibly having an incomplete set of expectations about future prices and future states of the world. If individuals differ in their expectations, so that their planned future purchases and sales are based on what they expect future prices to be when the time comes for those transactions to be carried out, then individuals will not be able to execute their plans as intended when at least one of them finds that actual prices are different from what they had been expected to be.
What this means is that expectations can be rational only when everyone has identical expectations. If people have divergent expectations, then the expectations of at least some people will necessarily be disappointed — the expectations of both people with differing expectations cannot be simultaneously realized — and those individuals whose expectations have been disappointed will have to revise their plans. But that means that the expectations of those people who were correct were also not rational, because the prices that they expected were not equilibrium prices. So unless all agents have the same expectations about the future, the expectations of no one are rational. Rational expectations are a fixed point, and that fixed point cannot be attained unless everyone shares those expectations.
Beyond that little problem, Mason raises the further problem that, in a rational-expectations equilibrium, it makes no sense to speak of a shock, because the only possible meaning of “shock” in the context of a full intertemporal (aka rational-expectations) equilibrium is a failure of expectations to be realized. But if expectations are not realized, expectations were not rational. So the whole New Classical modeling strategy of identifying shocks to a system in rational-expectations equilibrium, and “predicting” the responses to these shocks as if they had been anticipated is self-contradictory and incoherent.